Freedom of religion is at risk worldwide Print
Bishop Hying's Column
Thursday, Sep. 12, 2019 -- 12:00 AM
Bishop Donald J. Hying's column

Worldwide, Christians are being killed explicitly for their faith in alarmingly large numbers these past years. North Korea, the Middle East, and Africa are some of the top hotspots for Christian persecution.

Believers in Christ are being systematically driven out of the Holy Land through intimidation, prejudice, and lack of opportunity. Soon, there will be almost zero Christians in the country where Jesus lived. More martyrs are being born through a bloody death than any time since the early Church!

Religious freedom at risk

Here at home, we do not face such overt violence because of our religious beliefs, but some significant shifts in political praxis have put our religious freedom at risk.

The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees religious liberty in our country. This right is not some beneficent gift from the government; it is inscribed in our human nature as an inherent right to exercise freedom of conscience. No one can either compel or restrict religious belief or practice. Faith is a sacred gift nurtured in the heart and soul.

In the early Church, Christians faced a difficult choice. They could either save their lives by burning a wisp of incense before a statue of the emperor who was worshiped as a god, or they could refuse to do so and face a terrible death.

Because we affirm that Jesus Christ is Lord and God, we can never worship a political leader or the state as the absolute sovereign in our lives. If Jesus is God, then no one else is. We honor those who gave up their lives rather than their faith as martyrs, witnesses to the absolute truth claim of the Gospel and the integrity of human conscience.

Freedom of worship versus freedom of religion

Recently, I have heard many politicians speak of the freedom of worship rather than the freedom of religion. This distinction is significant and dangerous. They seem to be asserting that, “We don’t care what you do in your houses of worship on a Sunday morning. You can hold and practice any sort of exotic belief that you like. Just don’t bring any moral or religious values into the public square.”

I read an article asserting that anyone who has a problem with abortion should not be allowed to work in healthcare. The Little Sisters of the Poor filed a lawsuit against the federal government a few years ago because they did not want to be forced to pay for contraception coverage in their health plan. Many Catholic Charities adoption services have ended because of lawsuits over their refusal to adopt to same-sex couples. Legislative efforts have attempted to force priests to violate the seal of confession.

Individuals may disagree over particular areas of Church teaching, but wouldn’t we all agree that no one should be forced to violate their conscience? Even during World War II, conscientious objectors served in the military because the government respected their refusal to bear arms and take another human life, regardless of the circumstances.

Church contributes to society

The Church has always seen herself as the servant of the human person and a prime participant in the common good. The contribution of the Catholic Church throughout the history of the United States to health care, education, social services, and the alleviation of poverty is enormous. Factor out Catholic institutions, and there would be significant parts of our country without access to essential services. A fundamental part of our mission is to serve people in light of the teachings of Christ.

Jesus carried out His ministry in the public square. He preached to the crowds, healed in the synagogues, debated religious leaders in the Temple, and ministered in the marketplaces. He was condemned in a public trial and executed in front of a mob in a legal action of the state.

From the very beginning of the Church on Pentecost morning, the missionary activity of the followers of Jesus has also been public. As Jesus says, “What you have heard whispered, proclaim from the housetops” (Matthew 10: 27). Healing the sick, teaching the young, feeding the poor, proclaiming the Gospel, and celebrating the Eucharist have always been public actions, as we fearlessly and lovingly witness to Christ for the world to see, not pointing to ourselves but drawing others to Him.

Church proposes, not imposes

The Catholic Church will always stand for religious freedom for all people. There are moments in our history when Catholics did not always extend to others what we wanted for ourselves. Saint John Paul II asked for forgiveness of these sins in the Great Jubilee of 2000.

Today, the Church only proposes the Gospel, never imposes anything. We will always insist on the fundamental human right to embrace, practice, and live our faith in the public square in the full integrity of what we believe.

Jesus Christ is Lord, which means no other institution or individual can ever claim our absolute obeisance. This steadfast insistence on freedom for the Church has caused collisions with Roman emperors, medieval kings, Renaissance princes, Nazism, communism, and now fundamentalist terrorism and some extremist strains in our own democratic process.

In other countries, Christians are being killed. Here, the prejudice is more subtle, yet nevertheless real. The Lord calls us to be gentle, firm, courageous, and loving in our desire to give witness to the Truth and the Life of the Gospel, to stand strong for the integrity of human conscience, and to build a world of freedom, justice, mercy, and love, ready for the Kingdom of God.